Where’s the humanity in our health care?


Many of us would agree it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of “care” in Health Care anymore. HMOs, Health Maintenance Organizations, that most of us probably participate in, were set up as cost-saving vehicles not care-giving vehicles;  they work more or less until you really need some kind of care–I can’t get the orthotics my podiatrist says I need, there’s no coverage for anything that might help the tinnitus that drives me mad on certain days and until recently my test strips were so minutely parsed that I could never feel the assurance of testing as I needed.

But I digress. I want to talk about the visit to my ophthamologist yesterday for my annual dilated eye exam. What I observed prompted me to wonder if we need to not just change how Health Care works in this country, but the name itself. Given the power of words, if we renamed “Health Care” to “Humanity Care” for instance would it help remind over burdened doctors who have been mandated to see a ridiculous number of patients within a scant ten to fifteen minutes each day that there are actually human beings inside these objects that get moved like on an assembly line from outer waiting office, to inner waiting office to their sanctuary?

I like my ophthalmologist: she’s bright, wholly competent, invites questions, has a personal and reassuring manner and I am extremely happy I have her in my life since I was made to believe 36 years ago when I got diabetes that I would end up going blind. So, I always feel celebratory leaving her office but I used to also feel comfortable going in, which changed yesterday; I felt a difference in the air, and then on the ground. It was obvious how many more patients needed to be seen, so that everything that was done exhibited that the priority had been given to time management and not to patient care. I observed patients were being treated like objects to be processed; to be moved from point A to point B and then out the door.

First, I noticed extra chairs had been placed in the hallway of the interior office so that every time someone passed, which happened almost every 30 seconds, you had to scrunch your body out of the way or get out of your chair to create more room that wasn’t there, difficult for elderly patients. Then the rush was present everywhere: twice I saw technicians call a patient as they passed by to follow them into an examining room. The first time the technician was gone in a blinding flash around the corner before the patient, well into her seventies, could inch along with her cane. By time she was half way down the hall she shuddered in a slight panic right before me because she’d lost sight of him. The second time it happened, a doctor issued a greeting to a patient, and then when he got to the end of the hallway where his office was turned around to usher her into his room only to see that she hadn’t moved from her seat. He called her again, and she replied in a chirpy, female-wanting-to-please voice, “Oh, I didn’t realize you wanted me to follow you!” laughter. Well why would she, he hadn’t asked her to, he’d just whizzed by.

My own treatment is what made me start notice all this. I was ushered into the first examining room by a technician after I’d sat in the waiting room for over an hour. When the technician closed the door she quickly apologized for the delay, but she didn’t apologize to me, she apologized to her computer since she was facing it and checking the screen for my details as she spoke. In fact, everything she said that was meant for me she said to her computer, her notebook or her equipment. Was I meant to feel sincerity in this communication?

Just the night before I’d seen a segment on the news show, 60 minutes, where a British adverturer in his 70s, who began a business to fly doctors, equipment and medicine to third world countries is now doing it almost exclusively in impoverished areas of America. His flying doctors, dentists, eye doctors, nurses take over a hall for a weekend in West Virginia, Kentucky, Washington and see about 800 patients over the weekend, sadly having to turn away hundreds for lack of time, personnel and equipment. A man was there who’d had an abcess tooth for more than two years which pained him every day. Young women were there who got a cancer diagnosis that day and the name of a nearby clinic. Yet the story that made me cry was of a petite, slim woman in her seventies, frail and cheerful who’d been one of the ones turned away and still she was cheerful until by a small tender act the journalist interviewing her ushered her to an eye doctor who made an extra few minutes to attend to her. She’s been wearing the same glasses for the last 16 years out of which she has not been able to see properly for years, yet she can’t afford to go to an eye doctor. She has no insurance because she can’t afford it after a lifetime of working. When she thought she’d be turned away she expressed that it was alright, she’d manage somehow, she had some friends and support in her church group, yet her face told another story of disappointment and our working poor. When asked if she asks her friends or church group to help her, she responded she didn’t want to be a burden, and the journalist reassured her there was no shame in asking for help, and she burst into tears. Watching this I began to cry for this frail, poor woman who’s worked her whole life and now can’t even afford an eye exam and a pair of glasses–here, in one of the wealthiest nations in the world.

If we started hearing on every news station what an awful state “Humanity Care” is in these days and reading about how poorly run our “Humanity Care”is instead of “Health Care,” maybe we’d at least be reminded that we’re actually talking about people, not cattle, not objects, not numbers. Can two words change how we think? Hmmm….”Humanity Care,” it’s beginning to grow on me.

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